Inside Nerdist's Media Empire for the Internet Age
It's Thursday evening at the Helium Comedy Club in Portland, Ore., and the crowd is excited and, well, a bit awkward. While waiting for the night's stand-up acts to begin, a woman flags down an overtaxed bartender to ask if the club serves zombie drinks. "What?" snaps the server. The customer repeats herself, snorts and elbows her date, causing the bartender to storm off, muttering, "I don't know what you're talking about." But other patrons nearby, smirking and shaking their heads, clearly get the gag. And if they're laughing, it's because--for once--the joke isn't on them.
Later that night, while riffing on the vile comments left by trolls on his YouTube videos, headliner Chris Hardwick talks about the nerd uprising. "I've gone from being bullied by jocks as a kid to being bullied by nerds as an adult," says the 41-year-old stand-up comedian.
But he has only himself to blame. A TV host who anchors AMC's Talking Dead (a companion to The Walking Dead--hence the zombie groaner), Hardwick wields a repertoire laced with references to Doctor Who and Harry Potter. He jokes about his teenage days as a juggler and hanging out in onesie pajamas as an adult. Close to his heart, these topics are also dear to the legion of geeks who follow him worldwide. Only to them, Hardwick is no mere comic--he's the Nerdist, founder and chief creative officer of Nerdist Industries.
Launched in 2008, Nerdist has become the go-to media property for the fanboy and fangirl demographic. Covering everything from Avengers comic books to Zelda video games, content created by the 30-person company reaches millions of people every day. A model network for the internet age, Nerdist consists of a blog, podcast network, daily e-mail newsletter, premium YouTube channel, TV shows, live events and a massive social media footprint that includes the Nerdist Alliance, a community of curated partnerships with YouTube creators.
And though the company's multichannel platform has many legs, none carry too much weight. "That's sort of a survival mechanism," Hardwick confides. "I've been out of work so many times in my life that relying too much on just one job is terrifying."
The last time Hardwick was out of work was 2007. At that point he was best known as the host of two failed dating shows: Singled Out, an MTV program most memorable for launching Jenny McCarthy's career, and Shipmates, a syndicated cringe-fest set on a cruise ship. No longer on TV, he was out of the spotlight and struggling to draw audiences to his stand-up performances. "I was having a lot of those insomnia nights where you wake up at 3 a.m., and it felt like there was a troll sitting on your chest," he says.
One morning Hardwick woke up inspired. He had always loved gadgets, superheroes and video games, and though he had touched on these topics through the years, he hadn't made them the cornerstone of his work. "MTV wasn't doing a gadget show in 1995," he explains. "They were doing a dating show, and I was right out of college and wanted to work."
With that career behind him, Hardwick called his manager and said he wanted to work on programming that revolved around science, technology or pop culture--nothing else. "That kind of focus was the exact thing I needed," he says. "It just gives you a clear path."
The decision opened many more doors than it closed. Soon Hardwick landed a gig hosting Wired Science, a show developed by PBS and Wired magazine. With 13 years of hosting experience, 9 years of stand-up comedy chops and a lifelong interest in the nerdly arts, he was well-suited for the job. "No one quite had this triangulation of experience," he points out.
"It became clear, really quickly, that he was deeply geeky," says Wired articles editor Adam Rogers, who also worked on the show and hired Hardwick to write for the magazine. "No matter how hard I geeked out on something, he could keep right up with me." A few months later, Hardwick began nerding it up on other programs too, when the G4 network hired him to work as a correspondent on Attack of the Show and then in 2009 as the host of Web Soup.
"Every little step I took in this new direction, it was like feeling my molecules aligning," Hardwick says. "It just felt right."
Meanwhile, in late summer 2008, Hardwick launched Nerdist, a blog and Twitter account with a simple premise: to make periodic commentary on geeky things he enjoyed, with a sidebar listing his stand-up dates. "I felt like, spiritually, it would keep me sane," he says. Though he had no plans for Nerdist as a business, he modeled it after Perez Hilton's popular celebrity-gossip site. "We're past the information age; we're in the managing the information age," Hardwick explains. "When you're on the [Perez] site it's like you're hanging out with him--that spirit is what I wanted for Nerdist."
For the first year and a half, Hardwick ran the blog alone, doing all the coding, writing and photoshopping himself, until, awash in TV work, he had to hire writers and an editor to help keep the content fresh. He bootstrapped the operation with his paychecks. Then, as if he wasn't busy enough, he launched a podcast with some friends, recording the first episode on Super Bowl Sunday 2010. "None of us knew what we were doing," he says. "We just had a conversation."
A year later the Nerdist's thrice-weekly podcasts were averaging 75,000 downloads per episode, traffic was soaring on the blog, and Hardwick's @nerdist Twitter account had amassed 1.4 million followers. But the company had no revenue or even a business plan. There was just a relentless hunger for nerd culture that, as hard as he tried, Hardwick could not satisfy on his own.
As the founder of nerd-oriented e-newsletter GeekChicDaily, Peter Levin was the Batman to Hardwick's Superman, unlikely allies who fought in the same universe. Levin, 43, had cut his teeth in the entertainment industry with stints at Creative Artists Agency and The Walt Disney Company before founding venture capital and private equity firm Lynx Technologies in 1998. As managing director of Lynx, Levin invested in Applied Semantics before its $102 million sale to Google in 2003, Ask.com (then Ask Jeeves) ahead of its $1.85 billion IAC buyout in 2005 and Atom Entertainment before its $200 million sale to Viacom in 2006.
Then, in 2009, one of Levin's mentors, Hollywood magnate Peter Guber, advised him to strike out and build something he could be passionate about. As a childhood video gamer and early investor in the online network GameSpy, Levin saw tremendous potential--and fun--in the fanboy market. Using the mold of the wildly successful DailyCandy and Thrillist newsletters, Levin launched Los Angeles-based GeekChicDaily later that year.
"We had a very fickle, discriminating audience with GeekChicDaily--primarily young males, hyper-consumers of comic books, video games, theatrical, television, apps and tech," Levin explains. "It was a constituency that advertisers and marketers were very covetous of."
But growing that audience proved a challenge. In its first three months, GeekChicDaily reached 25,000 subscribers; after six, it was at 50,000. "We were scaling at a nice trajectory," Levin says, "but we weren't seeing the hockey-stick growth that you saw in some other environments." For example, in 2009 Thrillist had tripled its base, amassing 1.65 million subscribers. GeekChic needed a huge power-up.
Levin and Hardwick met in late 2010, set up by Hardwick's manager, Alex Murray of Brillstein Entertainment Partners. The two hit it off immediately and recognized their complementary abilities. Levin--who describes himself as 80 percent business acumen and 20 percent creative power--is, in a way, a bizarro-Hardwick.
"I like the back-office inner workings and the building and scaling of the business," Levin says.
"I love creating content, but I don't care as much about dealing with the business stuff," Hardwick says.
"And he's better at executing those things--that's his power."
In June 2011 the pair entered into an equity partnership, and Levin became CEO of Nerdist Industries. "To have an arbiter of the brand who could relinquish any of the business goings-on and unshackle himself from that part of Nerdist … it was very evident, very quickly, that this could be something worth pursuing," Levin says.
The Next Level
In the two years since Levin and Hardwick joined forces, Nerdist has taken off at warp speed. Across the major social media platforms, Nerdist accounts have accumulated 4.5 million followers, and the company's website gets 2.5 million unique visitors each month. As one of Google's most successful YouTube Original stations, the Nerdist Channel has nearly half a million subscribers; the company has also adapted several of its online shows, like All Star Celebrity Bowling, for cable. The Nerdist Podcast Network consists of 26 original programs that average 5.8 million downloads per month, and each episode of Hardwick's personal podcast garners an average of 200,000 listens. The company (which absorbed GeekChicDaily) sends 2 million e-mail newsletters to 400,000 opt-in subscribers every week.
All these Nerdist properties have one thing in common: ads. At an average age of 26.5, Nerdist's audience skews slightly male, with a median income of $60,000--a discriminating and desirable demographic. Speck Products, makers of protective cases for phones, tablets and laptops, is one brand that dove headfirst into advertising deals with Nerdist.
"There is a significant overlap in our consumer bases, and there is an alignment in ideology in the way Chris Hardwick redefines what a nerd is," says Bryan Hynecek, Speck vice president of design. "When the opportunity arose to partner with Nerdist, we went beyond advertising and even supported their Course of the Force."
He's referring to a weeklong, 500-mile relay race, launched last July by Nerdist and Lucasfilm, that features teams of runners in Star Wars costumes raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Though Nerdist already had a presence at popular conventions (and a dozen live podcast recordings each year), the fun run represented a new area for the outfit--live events. Further, the partnership with Lucasfilm helped raise the company's profile to a new level.
But the day before the Course of the Force ended, Nerdist made even bigger news. Legendary Entertainment, the film production company behind The Dark Knight trilogy, 300: Rise of an Empire and Man of Steel, had acquired Nerdist Industries for an undisclosed sum. "I look at them as kind of the top-down voice to this audience, and we're one of the bottom-up voices," Levin says. "When you can make those two meet, things get real interesting."
The move gave Nerdist access to more resources while allowing it to stay small. "A big company is like trying to steer a luxury liner," Hardwick says. "With digital stuff--podcasts, web video, stand-up--you have to be nimble and be able to turn on a dime."
Hardwick and Levin retained full control of their company, but now they have the backing of one of the industry's biggest brands. (As part of the deal, Hardwick and Levin were unable to provide revenue or profit details for this story.) "Legendary was complementary to us in the same way that Peter and I were complementary to one another," Hardwick says. "It felt like putting on an exosuit."
As a result, Nerdist has amassed Jedi-like star power: Tom Hanks has appeared on the Nerdist podcast, Neil Patrick Harris made a series of puppet-based YouTube videos for the company, and the cast of Mad Men met up for All Star Celebrity Bowling. Soon Nerdist will go boldly into low-budget comedy and genre films (though the company will not reveal details).
In the fall, Hardwick will follow Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central's acclaimed late-night lineup with @Midnight, a new game show fueled by social media and the website Funny or Die. You can practically hear excited, anxious nerds worldwide, laughing and snorting as they say in unison, "Make it so."